Be A Director, Not Just a Camera Pointer

by Ron Dawson13 Comments

Last week I asked the provocative question, “Are you a DP or a light putter-upper.” As expected, there was quite a diversity of replies and responses. This week I have another question for you. Are you a director, or are you a camera pointer? Actually, let me change that. I don't want to ask, I want to tell you. Be a director, not just a camera pointer.

I'd like to point out that this is really aimed at those of you who film documentary-style personal, event or commercial videos. So, if you're a feature or short film narrative director, I give you permission to stop reading now and go direct something.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris does way more than just frame his camera and conduct interviews.

Now, for the rest of you, I implore you. Just because you're filming a set of interviewees who are answering questions, that don't mean you can't be a director (poor grammar used on purpose for effect!) You should still be a director in every sense of the word. Composition. Action. Talent. Don't just make a nice and “safe” rule-of-thirds camera framing, hit record, ask your questions, then stop. Engage with the camera, the environment, and the subjects to create something more intentional. Here are some suggestions on directing…

  • Talent. Obviously, I'm using the word “talent” here loosely. In these documentary-style interviews, you're not dealing with actors. You're dealing with real people. That doesn't mean that you can't lead or direct them to answer your questions in a certain way to elicit the answer or emotion you want. If you notice one line of questioning evokes a certain emotion, go with it and do follow up. Don't be so glued to a set of pre-determined questions that you don't leave room to expand. Don't get stuck on “automatic.”
  • Camera and Composition. If you need the “safe” shot, get your perfectly framed shot that adheres to the rule of thirds. But if the project warrants or has flexibility for something different, don't be afraid to experiment with a different angle, a tracking shot, or a framed shot with the subject dead center. In some cases, breaking the rule of thirds may creatively work. If you have the budget, shoot simultaneously with a second camera that gets the creative shots.
  • Lighting. I'm sure many of you also handle the lighting for your shoots. Regardless, give some direction to your lighting. How can colors, direction of the light, ambient vs. set lighting, etc., affect the look and feel of your shoot? For more on this topic, read my post from last week.
  • Editing. On the off chance you do not edit a shoot, don't give up the “vision” of the video. Marty Scorcese may not sit in on all the editing sessions with his long-time editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, but I have no doubt he has a lot of say on how the finished piece looks.

These are just a few examples of how to be more than just a camera pointer. The overall moral of the story is: just because you're not shooting narrative fiction, doesn't mean you can't shoot a documentary-style video like one.

In my third and final installment, I'll address the question: “Are you a producer, or a cat herder?” The answer. Yes.

Ron Dawson is an award-winning filmmaker and host of the show “Crossing the 180“. As a director, he's been known to hit interview subjects with a paddle to get the emotion he wants. (Not true). He writes about the art and business of filmmaking and photography at DareDreamerMag.com.

Comments

  1. What an inane question. In a good crew there’s not “just a” anything. Everyone has very broad experience that encompasses multiple skills and talents and as to ” camera pointer ” the skill of good camera operating takes thousands of hours to acquire as does lighting. You’ll often see a relatively inexperienced directors nurtured by very experienced crews each of whom could possibly do the directors job – but that’s not what they’re there for. A good crew is a team with their egos well in check knowing that their job is to help realise the director’s vision.

    1. Author

      HI Paul. I wonder if you read my whole post. I apologize if you took my title to mean that the work of camera operators is not important. I think you are reading the title wrong. I’m not saying a camera operator is nothing. As I specifically mentioned, this post is aimed at people who shoot documentary style personal events and commercial shoots. These are almost always 1-person (maybe 2-people) crews where they are the one operating the camera. As I wrote, this is not geared towards those working on a full crew. If you are a lone shooter doing these documentary style events, don’t just point the camera at your subject. Direct your video. That is all I’m saying.

  2. Made perfect sense to me. Concerning the camera and composition, I’m pretty much an old school shooter, for lack of a better term, I’ve recently been seeing a shooting style, that when I first started in this wouldn’t even be considered. It’s one of those that breaks the rule, I think. Anyway, the composition/shots are a two camera setup for an interview, one wide, the other MCU. What’s different about this is in the wide we’ve got a screen left look estabilshed, but the MCU, jumps the line and is a screen right eyeline. I realize this isn’t something new, and I must say, I like the look. So, I guess my question is, if you haven’t established an interviewer, is it fair to say, you can jump that line at will? Obviously, if you establish your interviewer, screen direction is an issue.

    1. Author

      I’ve seen that style to which you’re referring Steve, and yes, i think jumping the line is fine in situations where you have not established the interviewer. There is no loss of orientation.

    1. Nerdo, I don’t think Ron’s intent on his post is to be taken as condescending, rather, it’s just good food for thought advice, nothing more, nothing less. Keep the peace brother, it’s all good!

  3. Hi Ron,

    I’ve read two of your posts now and, for me … meaning what I need to hear, you are spot on. I’m still an amateur filmmaker. ( I even wonder if I qualify for the “filmmaker” moniker:)

    My live events have mostly been limited to live music where I had no control over the lighting. (I asked the folks putting on the concert if I could add some lights but they said no.)

    Most of all I like the dialog going on in the comments, so I’m adding you to my reading list. (I hope I can find RSS feeds for your stuff.)

    I think the best project I’ve worked on is Isthmus. You can find it here: blip.tv/shaver-associates

    Peace,

    Rob:-]

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment Rob. It can be very frustrating when you have poor lighting conditions and no way to control it. That’s the “fun” of shooting live events. :)

      It’s very easy to find RSS and related links on my site.

  4. Where to start…Well for me years of being on movie sets with Big name Actors & Directors has not stifled my voice when it comes to speaking up when something is wrong, I was nearly black balled after punching a Set Dresser during a Movie shoot at Paramount Studios after an argument about placement of furniture, But these days with Low or No Budget indie Films Commercials and Short’s as a DP first & Director second, all the Directors I have worked with (with one exception) Have praised me for speaking up about anything that produces a better product in the end, Even when I Bark Action or Cut, or tell an actor to walk faster or stand a certain way, When that is clearly The Directors and the 1st AD’s job, When working as a DP with Directors I clearly make it known that I am a Director also, This opens the door for better communication and collaboration, And in the end we all strive for the best possible product.

    With that said, If some director hired me as a DP for a Big Budget Film Tomorrow everything I just posted is out the window, I would shut up, shoot, and get paid.
    Times are hard, and my hard ways need to mellow on Big Budget Projects :P

  5. Spot on, Ron. You said it quite appropriately and I couldn’t agree more: “The overall moral of the story is: just because you’re not shooting narrative fiction, doesn’t mean you can’t shoot a documentary-style video like one.” It’s all about being creative, and perhaps more important, it’s all about creating a piece that people LIKE and/or WANT to watch. Appreciated these posts. Thank you.

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